The Path of Kane

The Tiger God's Doman

THE HUNT IS ON

Isabella and Wilhelm stowed their gear and set off to track the tiger cult to the source of their power. Hooghly and the surrounding villages were rife with rumors and speculation about the cult itself. Mysterious and elusive, they nonetheless had spread a blanket of fear across the province of. The armies of the Mughal Empire and the Portuguese were powerless against this secretive foe. Surely members of the cult walked the streets of Hooghly, shoulder to shoulder with the common folk. Yet no one could identify its members, for they hid themselves behind masks of gold.

More frustrating for the scholar and her man-at-arms, there seemed to be no clear consensus as to the location of the cult’s lair aside from that it was hidden deep in the Sunderbans, a massive mangrove forest at the mouth of the holy Ganges river, haunted by man-eating tigers and worse.

For the journey, the two recruited the guide, Gopaul, for he new the country and its people and could speak fair enough Portuguese. On his recommendation, the pair decided to keep the subject of their search a secret. They booked passage aboard a Portuguese river barge and took the Hooghly river south to the coast, where they chartered a small dhow to take them to the fringes of the forest. It was a modest vessel, little more than a glorified fishing boat, and manned by a crew from a village that lay on the outlying coastal region. Gopaul engaged the crew and translated them for the “arrogant ferengi hunter” (Wilhelm) who had come so far to hunt tigers. But it was Isabella who prompted the questions while Wilhelm did his best to endure the tropical heat and maintain his haughty composure.

The crew provided a wealth of folklore for the wanderers:

“Do not believe the mainlanders, who speak of Dashkin Rai at the side of Bonbibi like a whipped dog. We know better. That Daskhim Rai, the demon of the forest, cursed by the gods for his crimes, made war upon them with the other asura until Kali brought all to heel. We know Dakkhin Rai_. The forest is still his domain, and he is no one’s pup.”_

“In the villages that ring the forest, the people draw life from the holy Ganges. They fish and hunt and trade along its waters.”

“In the summer months, men used to go into the forest in search of honey from wild bees. But too many have died in the past years from tiger attacks. Now no one goes into the forest, and many go hungry in the lean months.”

“There is only one tiger in the Sunderbans, and that is Dakkhin Rai. But he has many eyes.”

“If you go into the forest, you must be sure to wear a mask on the back of your head. This way, when the tiger god stalks you, he does not know if you see him or not. The tiger will only strike from behind. The mask can save your life.”

To demonstrate, one of the crew produced a crude, clay mask. Wilhelm was immediately interest, but hesitated at the exorbitant price the Bengali demanded.

“You are being robbed,” Gopaul told the wanderers. “But it is good. They get the better of two ferengi and you buy their good graces.” In the end, the crude clay mask cost Wilhelm nearly a whole rupee.

THE VILLAGE OF THE LAUGHING GOD

When the subject of the tiger cult arose, one crewman offered a clue as to their stronghold. “When I was a young boy, a fakir come to our vilage. He claimed that he had journeyed through the forest on a holy pilgrimage. One day, he came upon an ancient temple, the first to Dakkhin Rai. It was ruined and the forest had reclaimed much of it, but he sensed its power and history and so he sat and meditated.

“When he opened his eyes, he found a tiger sitting before him. Both starred at each other, and the fakir knew that, should he avert his eyes even for a moment, that Dakkhin Rai would claim him as a prize.

“And so he sat their, unblinking. The two starred at one another for three days and three nights. Finally, on the dawn of the fourth day, the tiger lay down before him and fell asleep.”

“What happened after that?” Isabella asked.

“Well,” the man said, “the fakir got to his feet and left, of course.”

“And you believe this story?” She has unconvinced.

“I have no reason not to.”

“Did the man ever tell you how he found the temple,” Wilhelm asked.

“Only that he always traveled towards the rising sun, and that it was three days from the morning that he left the village of the laughing monkeys that he came to it.”

“The what?” Isabellla asked.

“I know of that place,” another of the crewman said. “The village is blessed by Hanuman.

“Once, the monkeys and the people who lived there fought against one another. The monkeys would steal food from the village stores, and the men who hunt and kill the monkeys. And so it went on for all time. Then, one day, a leopard stole into the village and attacked one of the monkeys. A young village boy stepped forward and threw stones at the leopard, driving him away before he could kill. The monkeys saw this, and have never forgotten.

To this day, the monkeys of the village share in all of the responsibilities and bounty of the village. They fish, hunt, and forage right along side the villagers.

“The village is far inland along the banks of the Ganges, towards the northern edge of the forest. When you arrive, you will be greeted first by a smiling statue of Hanuman.”

The crew were happy to offer their services to the hunter. They claimed to know a fantastic spot for tiger hunting; a dry, highland where deer often gather to graze. “And where the deer go, so does the tiger hunt.” The group decided it might be too risky to involve the villagers, and that perhaps it would be better to buy their own boat and hire a few hands on the ‘morrow.

“How much will that cost us?” Isabella asked Gopaul.

“Less than the German paid for that mask.”

HOSPITALITY

It was evening when the boat arrived at the village. While the wanderers waited on the banks of the bay, Gopaul went into town to find a place where they might buy shelter for the night. Almost immediately, the exotic quality of the two travelers drew throngs of curious children, as well as welcoming smiles and suspicious stares from the villagers. The people here were obviously improvised, bordering on famished. Most of the children wore rags if any clothes at all. The village maintained a small fleet of fishing boats that looked fit for coastal travel, including one or two larger vessels that might serve the expedition.

The guide returned with news that he had spoken to a family who had agreed to let the travelers share their hut. It was a large family, with many children. They laid some raised pallets on the porch of the one room cottage for their guests. Isabella and Gopaul entertained the children with tales of Wilhelm’s exploits. After the children were sent to bed, though, their father stepped forward to have a conversation with the travelers. Gopaul translated.

“Is it true you intend to hunt tiger in the forest?” he asked.

“Yes,” Wilhelm implied, lying as best he could.

“Hmmm…” the man said. “Many bad things have happened in the past two years. People do not go into the forest anymore, for fear of their lives. I fear if you provoke the demons of the forest, you will make it worse for us.”

Wilhelm considered this. “It’s likely a fool’s errand. I doubt we’ll see anything, let alone a tiger.”

“Blessed Bonbibi,” their host said, “I hope you are right.”

SLAVERS!

During the night, the travelers were suddenly awoken by shouts and screams of the villagers. Armored men baring torches and wickedly curved swords rampaged through the village, pillaging and robbing. Some were even attempting to carry off women and children. Isabella immediately distinguished them from the dark skinned Bengali by their paler, golden-hued skin, their almond shaped eyes, and long thin mustaches.

She drew her pistols and fired at a nearby marauder dragging a woman by her hair. The man took the ball in the neck and went down without a sound, leaving his victim to claw her way to freedom.

The roar of the pistols drew more marauders. By now, Wilhelm was on his feet, his blades drawn. Wave after wave of killers crashed upon him, but none could match the German’s swordplay. Gopaul stood at his side, holding his own in the defense of the village. All the while, Isabella roared away with volley after volley of gunfire.

Spying a marauder escaping with two children, Wilhelm gave chase. He shouted after the man, who as alien to the sounds of the German language as he was, could not mistake the mocking tones. He turned against the big man, using the children as shields. As focused as he was on this threat, Wilhelm could not mistake the soft sounds of sandaled feet approaching from behind. The slaver dropped the children and whirled his own swords threateningly, but Wilhelm was not taken with the ruse. He whirled to confront the three men coming up behind him carrying a large fishing net. In moments, all four men lay dead or unconscious at his feet.

The slavers abandoned the village with their booty. Gopaul turned one of the dead men over with his boot and frowned in disdain. “Burmese pirates,” he spat.

With one captive to their credit, the wanderers learned that the slavers were in the service of a Captain Sing, and had attacked the village believing the people there easy prey that might fetch a good price on the slave markets in Thailand.

“Feel like hunting pirates?” Isabella asked Wilhelm.

The big man laughed. “We might as well go to war against the whole damn country!”

The villagers were grateful for the travelers’ defense of their people. The heroes were offered a gift of a dhow they had favored, and three men eagerly volunteered to guide them into the forest. Isabella would not hear it, and made sure the village was compensated for the boat, as well as a bit extra for the supplies that had been lost to the slavers.

THE TIGER GOD’S DOMAIN

On the morning tide, the travelers set out along the delta in their modest craft. The weather had turned misty when one of the crewman caught sight of another Burmese ship. It gave chase as Wilhelm order them men to turn their own boat towards shore, hoping to catch the pirates in the shallows.

The pirates pursued them into the coastal estuaries. Wilhelm ordered them crew to make landfall on a small stretch of muddy shoreline, choked in mangrove trees. He roared taunts across water, hoping to draw the pirates in closer, but after the lookout took a glancing shot from Isabella’s pistols, the Burmese turned their ship around to flee. Wilhelm choked down his disappointment and set his mind back to the pursuit of the cult.

…to be continued.

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Beneath the Full Moon

GM Note: Congratulations to Joe and Chiara on the birth of their son. We wish them all the baby bliss they can stand.

While Father Diego and Idrissa took watch positions near the main entrance of the grounds of the shrine, Wilhelm, Isabella, and Brother Renero moved up along the low, crumbling stone wall to get a better view of the enemy camp. In many areas, the jungle threatened to consume the old shrine, and they used this to their advantage.

The marauders’ camp consisted of four tents, shared between nearly twenty men. Five guards patrolled the shrine grounds at all times. Three carts, laden with crates, lay to the rear of the camp, while the oxen that drew then and a dozen horses grazed among a grove of fruit trees. The shrine grounds were maintained by a small group of monks, who now tended to the needs of the mercenaries. Above all this, the image of Hamunan, the monkey god, loomed smiling, as if enjoying his own private jest.

The wanderers quickly identified the “leaders” in the camp. One was an imposing Afghan, tall and well-muscled, who seemed to have the respect of the rest of the marauders. Was this Uthman Khan himself? Could the wanderers be that fortunate? Quietly, Wilhelm sized up the man.

The other man to whom the camp differed was a robed man whose features were hidden behind a golden tiger mask. The group noted that the mask was also decorated with the symbol they had only days before, traced in blood on a forgotten shrine to Dashkin Rai. The dancing lights of the campfire played off the golden mask as the cultist addressed the camp.

“Tonight, Dakkim Rai’s harbringer will slay and rend. Beneath the full moon’s, it will wallow in bloodshed. By morning’s light, his fury will infect the people, who will be ready to take arms against these ferengi and dive them back to their ships and across the seas. Salmolin, the blessed and bloodied, has foreseen this. Praise be to Dakkim Rai, King of the South, Master of Beasts!”

The camp shouted its approval, then prepared to bed down for the night.

Quietly, the wanderers planned their assault. They would wait for a moment when the guards attention was elsewhere. Then, Isabella would cut the tethered horses free to distract the camp. Wilhelm insisted on a direct confrontation with the Khan, whom he holded would be caught off guard by the assault. From the rear, Isabella would use her pistols to even the odds while Brother Reniero ran interference for her. It seemed like a sound enough plan. In the distance, a lone wolf bayed at the full moon.

The distraction was executed perfectly, and Wilhelm found himself confronted by twenty armed marauders and the heat of a burning tent at his back. He focused his assault on the Khan while, from behind the stone wall, Isabella took aim at the closest man.

Then the priest emerged from his tent, chanting his chakra. He drew a knife from his belt and plunged it into his own hand. Blood welled, but he gave no pause. Suddenly, Wilhelm’s limbs felt laden, and the weight of his swords felt off balance. Blows he once turned away with ease now began to strike home. The German realized to his horror the foul sorcery that had been inflicted on him. With all the focus he could muster, he forced his way past the Khan’s defenses and cut the man down. He hoped the fall of their leader would break the will of the marauders, but he was instead met with even more resolve. The man at his feet was not the Khan after all.

The priest began a new mantra, raising his hands and calling out to the forest beyond the shrine. Even sluggish from the foul curse, Wilhelm closed the distance between them in an instance. He did not hesitate as he slashed his blades across the priest’s throat, silencing him in an instance. Only as the priest’s blood fed the ground did the German consider what the troupe had lost in his death. Hopefully, they would be able to extract info from another prisoner after the battle.

Isabella continued to blast away at the marauders, who now began to move in on her position. As they did, Brother Reniero sprang into action. What he lacked in fighting expertise, he made up in sheer will. He threw himself bodily against his opponents, bringing them to the ground in a tumble where he could wrestle them into submission. This allowed Isabella the chance to move and use the wall to her advantage, keeping the marauders off her while she fired away with abandon.

As the soldiers moved against Wilhelm, the forest exploded with a roar. A horrific man-beast burst forth, grappling and tearing at a passing marauder. Blood gushed forth from the man’s ruined throat. The shock and ferocity of the attack sent waves of horror through the ranks of the marauders. Their courage fled and all but one escaped into the forest away from the beast-man, Isabella and her hound along with them. Wilhelm held his composure. Growing up, he had heard the tales of wolf-men, but had never seen one himself. And what was a creature of the Schwarzwald doing in Hindoostan?! Perhaps this wasn’t a werewolf at all, but some foul specter the priest had summoned from the forest. Perhaps the dark magic of Dakkhim Rai had transformed one of the soldiers into this bestial thing.

The remaining marauder paused, unsure of his next action. Wilhelm suggested they join forces against the beast. The man agreed and the two joined swords. Brother Reniero, meanwhile, stole quietly among the laden carts, looking for something advantageous for the fight. He withdrew a canvas tarp and a length of rope.

Isabella had found her courage and returned from the forest. She remembered the silver shot the group had purchased before their journey to the Castle of the Devil and prepared to reload her pistols. Her hound she dispatched to aid Wilhelm and the others.

The beast was still feasting on the fallen Hindu when Wilhelm set his blades upon it. The assault scarcely injured the werewolf, but did get its attention. But before it could act, Brother Reniero was upon it. Throwing himself against the beast, he tangled it in the canvas and rope. The creature roared in anger! The marauder moved in to land a killing blow.

A shot rang out, and a lead ball took off the top of the marauder’s head before he could strike. The wanderers looked up to see a lone figure, bathed in moonlight, perched atop one of the monks’ hovel on the far side of the shrine grounds.

The beast burst its bonds and, with a growl, fled into the forest. Brother Reniero gave chase, but soon lost the beast in the black jungles. The rest of the troupe set off after the gunman, but found him gone once they reached the hovels. How had he slipped past them? And where were Idrissa and Father Diego, who were supposed to be standing guard?

The found Father Diego coming too against a nearby tree. He had been struck from behind. Idrissa returned moments later. She had been investigating some movements in the forest west of the shrine. There, she had found the bodies of four marauders, fresh victims of the beast. She was confident their wounds matched those of the child taken by the beast the night before.

And where was Santiago? Why, high in a tree. From his vantage, he’d seen the whole thing. “Big Dutchman,” he said in his broken dialect. “Him come with long gun.” Which of the Dutch was it? “One who room I visit.” Holtzmann? “Yes.” An outrage! Surely we must give chase. Can you track him? “Why? Him Dutchman. We know where he going.” They thought about it and agreed with the pygmy’s wisdom. It wasn’t likely that a Dutchman, even one armed with a musket, would remain in the wilds for long. Certainly he would return to the Nazim’s palace. But why was he here? Why had he shot the marauder?

These questions would have to be answered later. First, there was the matter of captives. The man they had mistaken for Uthman Khan still lived, though badly injured. The wanderers decided they would try to get as much information as they could from him. Brother Reniero immediately set about a bloody rouse, decorating himself in the blood and entrails of the marauder taken by the werewolf. It worked, and the wounded man was appropriately horrified.

From his loosened tongue, the troupe confirmed that the Khan’s plan was to arm the peasantry so that they might rise up against the Portuguese and drive them from the shores of Hindoostan. He was not, however, in league with the Dutch, who he hated as much as any other ferengi. The man was a lieutenant of the Khan, and was expected to report back to an outpost of the fringe of the Sunderbans within the week. He was reluctant to give the location of the outpost until Brother Reniero convinced him that he was a sorcerer, had stolen the man’s soul and would only return it when he led them to the site. Horrified, the man agreed.

Leading their prisoner back to Hooghly, the wanderers discussed their next move. It was decided that Idrissa, Father Diego and Santiago would rally the forces of the Portuguese and the Mughals and journey with them to confront Uthman Khan’s forces. Wilhelm, Isabella, and Brother Reniero would journey into the heart of the Sunderbans and strike at the heart of the Tiger Cult, and hopefully end the terror that had stole the hearts of the people of this region.

To be continued…

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The Specter of the Khan
A new adversary is revealed.

Dawn arose on a very different Hooghly. Peasants from the surrounding villages, angry and afraid, gathered in mobs outside of the factory. Native hunters, who had set out immediately when news of the dead boy had spread, proudly displayed their trophies: a dozen dhole (wild dogs), two leopards, a hyena, and an emaciated tiger. Hidden amongst the mob, agitators were whipping them into a frenzy. The anger of Dashkin Rai would be visited on every village in the region until the ferengi (westerners) abandoned their works and left, it was said.

Baron da Silva had no choice but to order the walls of the factory sealed. At the recommendation of the wanderers, however, he issued a decree that no man was to fire on the mob, regardless of provocation, without his orders.

The wanderers braved the mob to visit the Nazim, Jwala Damodar Kusagra. The man who had only yesterday showered them with gifts was now scarcely willing to greet these strangers to Hindoostan. It was only with some duplicity and contrivance that the wanderers managed to explore any of the Nazim’s palace. Wilhelm and Isabella introduced themselves to Erik de Klerk, one of the Nazim’s Dutch guests. He was affable enough, and shared a dark stout with the German. Meanwhile, Brother Reniour and the pygmy, Santiago, managed to invade the room of an intimidating Stefan Holtzmann before being led away by the palace guards.

Returning to the factory, the troupe was alert to agitators in the mob. Idrissa spied one she recognized and the wanderers gave chase. Though he slipped through their fingers, they did discover that he, and perhaps the other agitators, were associated with a band of marauders led by Uthman Khan. The Khan’s band was well known in Bengal, for he had operated and eluded capture for many years despite the best efforts of the empire. He seemed to share Dashkin Rai’s goal of ridding the land of the ferengi.

Armed with this new information, the wanderers tracked the agitator to a mosque outside of Hooghly. The imam there was unable (unwilling?) to give them any real information, scoffing at the local superstitions of some forest god and demonic beasts roaming the land. He was in a bit of a hurry to begin a pilgrimage to the capital, Agra. A quick survey of the wagons suggested he was planning to be gone awhile.

The real break came when the wanderers heard a rumor that Uthman Khan’s men, perhaps even the Khan himself, had been sighted at an old shrine to Hanumam, the monkey god, a few miles east of Hooghly.

As night set in, much of the mob melted away, returning to their huts to protect their families from the ravenous hunger of the Dashkin Rai. Those that remained stuck close to the large campfires. It was an easy task for the wanderers to slip over the walls of the factory and set off towards the old shrine. Under the baleful light of the full moon, they made their way East. They finally came upon the ruined wall of a modest shrine in the forest. From their vantage, they could make out the fires of the camp site. They counted some twenty men, among them five or so active guards. A camp had a dozen horses among them, along with two wagons drawn by teams of buffalo. The wagons were filled with crates, rumored to be filled with weapons with which to arm a full on revolt against the Portuguese merchantmen at Hooghly.

Quietly, unseen, the wanderers prepared to make their next move…

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A Short Celebration

The beast was dead! The wanderers returned to camp to great fanfare. Even the bureacrat dispatched from Hooghly to see to da Franc’s effects seemed impressed by their kill. In the morning, a handful of the Bengali porters left ahead of the main party to spread the news: the beast was dead! Blessed by Bonbibi and her champions! For surely it was only with her aid and wisdom, and the assent of Dakshin Rai, that this group of strangers were able to bring an end the beast’s savagery. Word spread across their path like wildfire. In every village, at every farmstead, every encampment, the wanderers were welcomed like heroes.

Returning to Hooghly, Father Diego made plans to seek out clothier to make a cape for himself and Sebastian from the beast’s hide. Isabella and Wilhelm returned to the estate of Baron da Silva, where they were welcomed with a dinner invitation. The baron’s guest was very interested to meet the Europeans acquaintance and hear their tale himself.

Idrissa cared only to look in on her cousin, Masud al-Khalid. His condition had not changed. His nurses said, however, that in the middle of the night (about the time the beast had attacked the camp), he awoke raving. No one could understand the gibberish he had shouted before plummeting back into his deep sleep. Curious about this, Idrissa excused herself to seek out Father Diego’s guidance.

Dinner at the Baron’s household was a lively affair. His guest was the esteemed Portuguese explorer, Henrique do Amaral. He had arrived in Hooghly to begin preparations for his latest endeavor: exploration of the Himalayas. He hoped to open a new mountain passage that the crown might enjoin trade with the Chinese without interference from the Mughals and other Arabs. He also hoped to solve the riddle of Cathay.

“Since Marco Polo’s journey to Cathay,” he told the wanderers, “no European has found passage back. The Mughals mock us, and tell us Cathay and China are one in the same, and that our missionaries have already returned to this fabled land. But I would know for myself. Perhaps there is a land out there, beyond the Himalayas, still waiting to be rediscovered.”

Impressed with Wilhelm’s stories of their exploits and adventures, do Amaral invited the pair to join him on his expedition. “I hope to depart from Delhi in three months time,” he told them.

Given his background as an explorer, Wilhelm asked do Amaral if he had knowledge of any large caches of gems, or lost treasure, in Hindoostan. The man chuckled and told them the story of the Lost City of Kubera, where it is believed the treasure of the gods had been hidden away. Of course, do Amaral found no basis in truth for this myth, and did not encourage the pair to indulge in such fantasies.

A servant interrupted to inform the dinner party that an envoy from the Nazim had arrived bearing gifts and rewards for those who had slain the beast. The gifts included two fine stallions from the Nazim’s own stables, an illustrated copy of the Mahabharata that Isabella immediately claimed as her own, a prayer rug after the Muslim tradition, and a finely crafted dagger with silver inlays and a jeweled ivory hilt.

Once the envoy departed, the Baron’s demeanor darkened. He enjoined a rant on the governor’s arrogance. To final insult for da Silva was the Nazim’s welcoming of a party of Dutch prospectors interest in the daily operation of the Hooghly colony. The Baron was certain the Dutch had every intention of stealing the colony right out from under the nose of the crown if they could manage it. That the Nazim would flaunt his status in the midst of this rivalry infuriated the Baron. He even mused that it would not be beyond the Dutch to be behind the tiger cult that was the source of so much fear and instability among the native Bengali.

Meanwhile, Idrissa and Father Diego worked tirelessly to find a connection between the beast and Masud’s affliction. The priest had not previously been able to deduce any supernatural taint to the young soldier’s condition, but could not rule out such things either. A witch’s curse was a devilish thing. They speculated that perhaps the spirits of the beast and Masud had been intertwined. If that was the case, the man should recover quickly, Father Diego speculated.

The pair also uncovered disturbing details of the religion of the Bengalis. Dakshin Rai, the king of the south and protector against wild beasts, was referenced in some older, Vedic-era, accounts as Dakkan Rai: a man who assumed the form of a tiger to kill his victims. In other tales, he was a king among the asura, and arch-enemy of Bonbibi. Obviously, time had improved the deity’s reputation among the indigenous peoples.

Their research was interrupted by a young initiate who came to inform them of a disturbance in the colony. There had been another murder. This time, a young boy taken from his bed at night. Immediately, word was dispatched to bring Isabella and Wilhelm to the site of the murder.

The boy had been disemboweled and his throat torn out. From the markings on the corpse, Wilhelm and Father Diego deduced that he had been dragged by the throat out of his hut to the place where he had been killed. They also deduced that the teeth and claw marks were smaller than those the tiger they had slain. Whatever was stalking the night in Hooghly, it was still out there, bold as ever under the fattening moon.

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The Hunter and the Hunted

While the group prepared to journey into the forests north of Hooghly, Idrissa set out to hire a local guide. Baron da Silva directed her to a local establishment where capable hunters gathered. After asking around, she procured the services of a Bengali named Gopal, who claimed to know of the location where Christovao da Franc, the famed Portuguese hunter, fell to the Beast.

BonbibiThe group set out north along the Hooghly river. They passed many farms and small communities along the way. The local Bengalis were watchful and even suspicious of their approach. The men would stop and stare, while mothers would hurry their children from the paths of these strangers. Around midday, they arrived at a village of modest-size where they witnessed a ceremony to the forest goddess, Bonbibi. Ever curious, Isabella inquired to Gopal for details. 

The guide explained that the people of the village were praying to Bonbibi and Dakshin Rai, the King of the South, for protection against the beast that now stalks the lands surrounding the colony of Hooghly. “They believe,” he said, “that the presence of the Europeans has angered Dakshin Rai. They offer him flesh for his appeasement and protection.” Indeed, the villagers slaughtered three goats, whose remains were offered before the elaborate shrine. Isabella asked Gopal what he believed. “I am not fool enough to forsake the gods. I pray to Bonbibi for guidance and protection each morning. But do I believe as they do that, in his anger, DakshinDakshin Rai has belched forth a demon that slaughters children and women? No. I believe it is some tiger or leopard that has found these people to be easy pray.”

Idrissa, meanwhile, inquired among the villagers for any link between the beast and the Black Heart of the Deccan. As much as the villagers obviously feared and reviled the mere mention of the witch, none would confirm even the rumor of a connection between the two.

Initially skeptical of the explorers, the villagers quickly warmed to them with the help and assurances of Gopal and Idrissa. The priests blessed them and the journey ahead.

After witnessing the ceremony, the group turned northeast and into the forest. As they traveled, the jungle grew dense around them. Life stirred in sudden unexpected rushes all around them. As dusk came upon them, they arrived at the remains of da Franc’s campsite. A Portuguese bureaucrat and a small contingent of Bengalis had been dispatched from Hooghly the day before to see to the Hunter’s body and his effects. They were excited at the arrival of Father Diego. “Wonderful,” the portly European said. “Now you can preform the last rites and we can get this sordid business behind us. The heat of this infernal jungle taxes me so.”

Two dalits (low-caste or untouchables) were digging shallow graves not far from the campsite. The bodies of da Franc and one of his porters were wrapped in white shrouds. By the look of the bloodstains on da Franc’s shroud, it was obvious he had met with a gory end. Wilhelm assisted Father Diego and the pygmy shaman, Santiago, examine the bodies. Christavoa da Franc had been opened from throat to scrotum. It was obvious that the grave diggers had done what they could to stuff his entrails back in place. It was impossible to tell if any of his organs were missing, but it was clear that whatever had killed him had feasted on his flesh before abandoning the corpse. His porter was a different story. A quick, clean bite to the back of the neck had severed his spine. Likely the man had died before he felt the weight of the killer upon him.

Of the second porter, there had been no sign. Isabella and Wilhelm set off to find him while Idrissa took one of the dalits to examine the site of da Franc’s death. The location had been prime: a clearing with low grass and scrub. A stake sat poised in the center, a fragmented length of rope still dangling from it. Nearby, a tiger pit lay undisturbed. The tree against which da Franc had died was still stained dark with his blood. His musket had been found only inches away from his cold hands. A blood trail led the Nair woman to the sad remains of a goat, likely bait for the beast. By the look of the carcass, many animals had fed upon it since it had been killed.

Spiral

Meanwhile, Isabella’s hunting dog had the second porter’s scent, and was leading Wilhelm and her deeper into the jungle, away from the clearing. It came to a dark tangle of foliage where it stopped and began to bark frantically. Wilhelm cut through the brush in two mighty strokes to reveal a crude alter smeared in dried blood. Isabella and he determined that it was meant to be a likeness of Dakshin Rai, though one made by unskilled hands. The blood sacrifice was old and dark in the offering cup. On the chest of the effigy, traced in blood, was a three-armed spiral the likes of which neither of the explorers recognized.

Nearby, another bloodtrail was found that led them to the body of da Franc’s second porter. His body sat high in a tree, still clutching his musket in his death grip. A mortal wound had been slashed across his side, and yet he’d still found the stamina to climb high and away from danger. The group immediately dismissed the theory of the killer leopard.

Sunset found the group debating the nature of the beast. Some believed only men could pull off such a coordinated attack. None of the hunters had fired a single shot before they died. Were there multiple killers? Was the beast indeed a demon belched forth from hell? How silent and efficient must a beast be to kill three men unknown to the others?

No one saw any wisdom in remaining in da Franc’s bloodied campsite. So they struck forth and pushed on back towards the river until they could safely go no further. They made camp off the trail on a low hill and set watches, two men apiece. The skies were clear and the moon fat that night, and everyone was on guard for their lives against something unseen that prowled the forests, ever watchful.

Night was darkest when Isabella’s hound raised the alarm. With hardly a second to respond, the beast was upon Wilhelm. It was a monstrous black thing against the moonlight, all claws and fangs of fury. The Bavarian’s steel cut back against it, keeping it at bay. But neither could the swordsman land a telling blow. Isabella raced for a clear shot. She raised the pistol and aimed.

Crack.


Wounded, the beast took a parting slash at Wilhelm and plunged deep into the forest. Father Diego gave an enthusiastic shout as he gave chase. The hunt was high in his blood. His steed raced after the thing that cut through the tall grass like water. He jabbed with his lance and struck home. Up ahead, the forest closed in. Once beyond the tree line, the beast would certainly be lost to them all. The Jesuit focused and spurred on his horse. He struck out again and managed to slow the beast just long enough for his warhorse to deliver a powerful kick. The iron hooves struck home. The beast tumbled and lay still.

Father Diego dismounted as the rest of the explorers came up from behind to lay eyes on da Franc’s killer. There, in the grass, lay a monstrous tiger.

Still skeptical that a creature such as this could have killed three skilled hunters in one night, Wilhelm der Grosse took his knife to the beast’s belly. It’s stomach was full of flesh and some of it was most certainly human. Behind them, the dalits rejoiced.

The beast is dead! Blessings be to Bonbibi!

…to be continued.

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Arrival in Hooghly

The night began by playing through a series of Interludes that took the heroes from Portugal to Hindoostan.

  • Chiara (Trial): the wanderers and crew of the Maiden’s Breath contract mild cases of dysentery from tainted water along their journey. All recovered, but Wilhelm’s case was particularly bad.
  • Joe H (Boon): during a stop at a Portuguese port, Father Diego liberated a small group of African pygmies from mistreatment at the hands of local church authorities. Grateful for his aid and citing tribal honor, the pygmies insisted on accompanying Father Diego on his journey to Hindoostan.
  • Heather (Obstacle): Pirates overtook the Maiden’s Breath along the Horn of Africa. In the battle, Isabella was confronted by a Spanish pirate whose poisoned blade struck home. Weakened by her bought with dysentery, Isabella lay in a perilous state for several days, wracked by feverish visions. (Unfortunately for Father Diego, all but one of the pygmy tribesmen were killed in the battle with the pirates. The sole remaining tribesman, a witch doctor, continues to accompany him.)
  • Chris (Treasure): The defeat of the pirate vessel revealed a cache of items bound for western shores. Indeed, it appears that the fiendish crew had been preying on ships of the Dutch East India Company, sailing from Siam. In its hold were examples of exotic wares, including opulent clothing and a few weapons.

HooghlyThe wanderers arrived at the Portuguese colony of Hooghly to find a man awaiting them on the docks. This stranger sought an immediate audience with Captain Otto. Father Diego took him to be a man of Portuguese heritage, but oddly of protestant faith, and quickly set about to discover any secret Inquisition involvement (there did not appear to be). After a short meeting, Captain Otto emerged from his cabin to tell the rest of the wanderers that the Maiden’s visit would be cut short. He provided them with a letter of introduction to Baron Eurico da Silva, the governor of Hooghly, who was a friend and contact and should provide every hospitality to his companions in the captain’s absence.

While Fr Diego stabled his horse at the Bandel Church, Wilhelm and Isabella passed the time at a nearby teahouse. After Wilhelm argued with the proprietor over the lack of good Bavarian stout, the couple were approached by a Hindu woman dressed in simple armor. She stood out from the rest of the Bengali patrons, who seemed to give her only passing notice despite the amazed stares of the Portuguese. She introduced herself as Idrissa Navalé, and inquired as to the Bavarian’s availability for hire.

Her cousin, she told them, had only recently returned from fighting rebels in Ahmadnagar in the service of the Emperor. There, he had contracted a strange malady that left him feverish and raving. The local doctors had so far been unable to diagnose or cure him, and his father, Khalid ibn Najam, had sent for aid from General Islam Khan in Dhaka. The local Bengalis believed her cousin had been cursed by the Black Heart of the Deccan, a foul witch who dwelt under the protection of the Sultans there. “The believe a demon now rides his soul,” she said, “and that he is behind the murder of several farmers who live on the outskirts of Hooghly.”

Indeed, after a few inquiries, Isabella had confirmed the truth of these tales. The Bengali were hesitant to speak of them, perhaps because of the presence of Idrissa. Those who did laid the blame on the tiger cult of the Sunderbans. The Portuguese, not prone to such superstitions, believed the murders were simply the act of a mad dog or perhaps a rogue tiger. Those who had been killed had either been women, children, or the infirm, after all. But while the bodies had all been found close to the homes they’d been taken from, no cries of panic or alarm had aroused any nearby guards at the time of the attack. The murders had all taken place at night, the bodies mutilated as though by some ferocious beast.

Only days before the wanderers had arrived in Hooghly, many of the nearby villages who had suffered losses had pooled their resources and hired the esteemed Portuguese hunter Christovao da Franc. He had set off into the wilds of the jungle to find and kill the beast. The mood at the teahouse was confident that he would succeed.

Coincidentally, while at the Bandel Church, Fr Diego was reviewing journals of some of the Jesuit priests available in the church’s library. In the more recent entries, he found plenty of mention of the tiger cult, with some alarm that fear of the cult was undermining the church’s mission in Hindoostan. While these reports did not lay blame for the recent murders on the cult, they did not excuse the possibility. And besides, that the local Bengalis believed them responsible was enough. Concerned, Fr Diego set off to reunite with Isabella and Wilhelm at the teahouse.

He arrived just ahead of an alarmed messenger. “All is lost!” he cried. “da Franc has been killed! His remains discovered at dawn! The demon still stalks us!” The upcry from the teahouse was alarming. The wanderers immediately set off after the messenger to learn more details of the hunter’s demise. da Franc’s body had been found, yes, but not those of his porters (who were presumed dead as well). His camp had been nearly a day north of Hooghly, deep in the jungle. With this information, Wilhelm and Isabella agreed to help Idrissa restore her family’s honor and clear her cousin’s name. Fr Diego, spoiling for a good hunt, also agreed to join the chase! It was agreed; they would leave at first light.

…to be continued.

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The Killing Night

Heading south through the Schwarzwald, the wanderers came across a small group of Danish pilgrims bound for the Vatican. In their company was a young girl, Agneta, who bore a special gift. Blind from birth, the girl claimed to be able to see angels. The leader of the pilgrimage, Gregos, asked the wanderers if they might journey together through the forest, as there had been talk of banditry. The heroes agreed, though they were clear they were only heading as far south as the abandoned castle of Baron Von Staler. Once there, they would part ways.

On the afternoon of the third day, the group came across a grizzly site: a wooden plaque draped over skeletal remains of some poor soul, upon which was scrawled: WARNING: KOBOLDS! Those not native to the Empire knew little of such things. But Wilhelm der Grosse and Baldrik, the only one of the pilgrims of Germanic blood, had heard the tales all their lives. Kobolds, they knew, were spirits that often dwelled deep in mines. Malevolent tricksters, they would gladly lead men to painful deaths or worse. Since kobolds could not abide daylight, the group thought it wise to return to an inn they had passed some miles before, and turned back north.

Before they had gone far, they met a man in the road. He introduced himself as the Black Rose and bid them to relinquish their valuables if they knew what was good for him. Wilhelm forced him to eat those words at the edge of his blade as bandits set upon the group. In the chaos of battle, Isabella Montrose lost sight of young Agneta for the briefest moment, and in that speck of time the bandits took her. The heroes gave chase through the wild tangles of the forest.

They tracked the bandits to their campsite by evening. In unusually garish fashion, the bandit’s simple camp was surrounded by torches, banishing all but the briefest shadows from the place. Hiding behind the treeline, the heroes studied the camp until they discovered the tent Agneta was being held in. Then, they moved in to rescue the girl.

The rescue went as planned but for the sheer number of bandits. But as the sun sank beneath the horizon, the bandits did not give chase, and the heroes and pilgrims found themselves alone at night in the kobold infested woods. They hastily decided to make camp and set a bonfire to ward off the evil spirits they knew were even then surrounding them.

All night, the little creatures lay siege to the campsite. Foul illusions and guile were employed, and the disturbing scenes wore on the heroes, as did the weather which quickly turned foul. The steel gray night gave way to cruel winds and snow. With the exception of the briefest forays to the fringes of the firelight to collect firewood for the bonfire, the group kept a tight vigil.

With dawn came the bandits. Keeping quiet and fast, the wanderers outmaneuvered them and resumed their trek south down the road.

The next day, they arrived in Denbrach; a sleepy hamlet in the shadow of the Castle of the Devil.

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A Family Affair
Hamburg, Holy Roman Empire

The heroes arrived in Hamburg no worse the ware, managing to lose their pirate pursuers among a small cluster of islands off the coast of the United Provinces. Leaving Captain Otto to unload his cargo and manage his affairs, the rest set out to equip themselves for the expedition south to the forlorn castle of Von Staler.

Breaking his exile, Wilhelm der Grosse made pains to keep a low profile. Still he was recognized and called out, fondly, by his great bear of an uncle, Lord Helfrid Klotten. Overjoyed by this unexpected visit, Lord Helfrid insisted the cadre reside at the family estate as his guests while they were in Hamburg.

That evening, the cadre dined with Lord Helfrid and his wife, Frida. Well aware of Wilhelm’s situation, Helfrid assured him of discretion. On news from Dusseldorf, yes, Wilhelm’s brother Alfreid still reigned there, much to the consternation of Lord Helfrid. Indeed, Helfrid had been amongst the few tied to the Heuber family who had opposed Alfried’s succession, and had paid a personal cost for his opposition.

After the rest of the cadre had retired to their rooms, Lord Helfrid asked for a moment of private with his nephew. It seemed his daughter, Erika, against her father’s demands, had taken to the company of an unscrupulous card player, Kurt Seher. A willful spitfire as a child, Erika’s demeanor had not softened in adulthood. Yet despite her disobedience, Lord Helfrid could not bring himself to send her away.

And so Lord Helfrid proposed a solution to his nephew. Erika did not know of his visit. So go pay a visit to young Kurt and impress upon him the severity of his situation. Perhaps, with Wilhelm’s insistence, the young man would see the wisdom in parting ways with the young woman.

Wilhelm shared the dilemma with his companions, who were only too eager to help. While Renoir scouted the vicinity of Kurt’s usual haunt, a gambling house called, The Red Door, Captain Otto dispatched his crew there for some much needed carousing. The ensuing melee was brilliant to behold, or so Renoir reported.

The next evening, Captain Otto again dispatched key members of his crew to deliver a message to young Kurt. They returned with disturbing news. While they had been “gentle persuading” young Kurt, a number of men descended on the Red Door and took Erika away. These men, it appears, were agents of a local loanshark, Oskar Hammerich – a man with enough money to buy himself into the nobility of Hamburg.

A rude peacock of a man, Lord Hammerich mockingly denied any involvement. The sharp ears of the group, however, caught his admission to his chief lackey that the deal would go down as planned, regardless of any bargaining with the cadre. A beggar in an alley across from the gates of the estate suggested that men on horse had ridden north with a young woman.

In the neighboring village of Moskburg, the heroes found Lord Hammerich’s men as well as an unknown party, along with a Romanian witch and an Italian of stature. Hammerich’s men were in the process of handing over young Erika when the heroes launched their attack.

While the Italian managed to escape, the cadre slew the witch and forced the surrender of both Hammerich’s remaining forces and those of the other party. Erika was not only rescued, but proved her worth with shots from Isabella’s pistols.

Under interrogation, the other party admitted they were agents of Prince Dreschler.

...to be continued.

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Across the North Sea

True to his word, Captain Otto and the Maiden’s Breath set off for the port of Hamberg on the afternoon tide. Aboard as his guests were Wilhelm and Isabella. Renior and Robert joined them, but worked with the crew to earn their passage.

Harried by a suspicious ship, the sixth day of the journey found the Maiden’s Breath born down upon by a Spanish Brigantine, the Queen Isabella. The captain demanded that his marines be allowed to board and inspect the ship for contraband. Badly outgunned, Captain Otto had little choice but to allow it.

Captain Ibanez and his marines were accompanied by an unexpected guest: a Dominican boldly wearing the colors of the Spanish Inquisition. While Ibanez and his marines prowled the hold, the priest took time to question the crew as to their nationality and times aboard the Maiden’s Breath. Robert sulked away, hiding within the captain’s cabin (which had been turned over to Isabella for the length of the journey). The priest had deposited his satchel therein, and within it, Robert discovered three interesting letters. Before he had a chance to fully examine them, Captain Otto and the Dominican, Brother Alejandro, entered the cabin, forcing him to hide.

As with the crew, Alejandro inquired as to Captain Otto’s nationality and wished to examine his logs and charts. He inquired after a Norwegian village called Kjeften. Satisfied that the Maiden’s Breath had never visited that remote destination, Alejandro and Captain Ibanez bid their farewell and returned to the Queen Isabella, leaving the heroes to resume course.

Examination of the priest’s letters suggested a sinister character to the village of Kjeften. The heroes, Isabella in particular, would ponder over them for days.

The next morning, the Maiden’s Breath was assailed by pirates.

To be continued…

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Londontown

Our heroes, Isabella and Wilhelm, arrive in London seeking to book passage on a ship to the German provinces. Wandering the docks, the rescue a young page from a brutal beating by a gang of young ruffians. Grateful for their intervention, the youth gets their names, promising to tell his lord and master of their aid.

Leaving the boy to his errands, the two stumble upon a crew of city watchmen drawing a butchered body from the Thames. The horrified crowd mutters dark thoughts on gang violence, axe-wielding murderers, but many put the blame on recently dead witch still hanging in a gibbet in the local square. Convicted by a local magistrate of good standing, it is said the witch opened her wrists with her own teeth before uttering a death curse upon the people of London. In the week since her death, five bodies have been drug from the Thames, all sharing the same horrible wounds.

Pondering this turn of events, the heroes meet a young monk named Renoir. In the midst of a crisis of faith, Renoir is wandering the land seeking answers. Viewing the arrival of Isabella and Wilhelm in this foreign port as a sign, he graciously volunteers his aid as a traveling partner. The two scarcely have time to consider his offer when a messenger arrives at the inn looking for them. It seems the young page has been true to his word, and Lord Dunningham of Reading has invited them to his estate on the outskirts of London to dine with him.

At dinner, our heroes meet the Count’s two other guests, Lord Lazare Lacroix of France and Gormr Owheilsbrenger, a merchant sea captain from Sweden. There is plenty of talk of the new political landscape of France, what with the recent assassination of King Henry IV. But eventually talk turns to darker, unnatural things as the group discusses the witch’s curse. Impressed with the character of his new guests, Lord Dunningham invites them to witness his duel on the morrow against Lord Axley, a true scoundrel of court. Lord Lazare, he says, will be his proxy as Dunningham is suffering from an injured leg. Hearing that Isabella and Wilhelm are looking to book passage to the German Empire, Dunningham offers that Captain Gormr might be interested in taking them. The captain agrees, but excuses himself from dinner early so that his ship might be prepare to sail on the second tide tomorrow.

Through an interesting coincidence, the evening unites all four of our heroes at a ghastly seen at a home near the inn, where another murder has taken place. This time, it appears the murderer has kidnapped a young girl in addition to his usual butchery. The heroes follow the blood trail back to the witch’s gibbet, where they are suddenly ambushed by the youth gang Isabella and Wilhelm confronted earlier. This time, the gang fairs no better, and with a quarter of their number fallen in less than a breath, they scatter. The heroes dust themselves off, clean their blades, and consider their next move when a horrible scream erupts from the grate beneath the gibbet.

Below, the heroes find the remains of one of the gang members: washed among a splatter of gore lies a severed hand, still warm and twitching.

As our heroes descended into the rank sewers beneath the London docks, they were approached by a stranger in grim breastplate. Robert, it seemed, had been hunting the same villain the heroes were now in hot pursuit of and wished to join them on this errand. Leaving Renior behind to guard the grate and wait for Captain Otto’s reinforcements, the cadre made their way into the shadowy catacombs, battling back the rising bile in their throats as the stench threatened to overcome them.

They rounded a tight corner only to be washed over by a wave of rats. Wilhelm made ready for battle before realizing the rats had no interest in the heroes. Rather, their fear of what lay beyond seemed to be driving them.

The troupe wandered the sewers, following what slim remains of a blood trail remained from the butcher’s last victim. From deep within the sewers, they heard the rhythm of water beating against stone, suggesting somewhere lay an outlet to the Thames.

Then they stumbled upon the butcher’s stash. Pressed into an alcove were the remains of countless corpses: animal, human, and some unrecognizable. Most were stripped of flesh and all gnawed upon by rats. The discovery was too much for poor Robert and Captain Otto, who were overcome with terror and made to flee with all haste back to the sewer grate. Isabella managed to catch Captain Otto who, breathing heavy, succumbed to his girth. Her rush to console the captain left Wilhelm bathed in the pitch darkness. But he was not alone.

As Isabella and Otto made to rejoin their companion, they heard his shriek from the black catacombs. They rushed to find him being dragged into the black by an enormous, hairless rat. The beast was as big as a horse. Wilhelm tried desperately to free himself, but to no avail. Thunder echoed through the catacombs as Isabella freed her pistols and opened fire on the beast. Mortally wounded, the creature dropped Wilhelm and retreated into its lair, where they found the young girl, bloodied but still alive. They were met at the threshold of the lair by Robert, Renior, and a trio of sailors from Captain Otto’s ship.

News of the beasts death spread quickly through the docks, and by morning’s first light, Lady Isabella was the talk of the town. Even the nobles gathered for the duel between Lords Dunningham and Axley inquired about it as she and her companions arrived.

Lord Axley and LaCroix, Dunningham’s proxy, seemed well matched in their battle. But for an unfortunate misstep that misty morning, Axley fell dead upon the Frenchman’s blade. Mortified, the witnesses agreed that it was a tragic accident. Lord Dunningham agreed to make restitution to Axley’s family. The heroes retired, unconvinced of Lord LaCroix’s honor and character, but would say nothing publicly to besmirch him.

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